In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Portland State University had to dramatically change how it operates. On the fly, units within the University had to learn what works and what doesn’t work in the “new normal,” all while continuing to support the PSU community.
Below, four campus leaders reflect on the past six months and share what they have learned, how their groups have adapted and how the PSU community continues to display its resilient spirit in the face of tremendous challenges.
David Bangsberg, Dean of the PSU-OHSU School of Public Health
I was very involved in the HIV epidemic, and I thought that would be the most important public health event of my lifetime. It took HIV two decades to go around the world. COVID-19 took just two months.
This is an entirely new virus, and we had to first and foremost invest in the science to understand what was happening. In doing so, we have learned that public health science really matters. We are seeing public health concepts be validated country by country and, particularly in the U.S., state by state. We have a pretty good understanding of what we need to do, and, when we do it, it works. When we don't do it, it doesn't work.
In Oregon, we didn't see the surge that New York saw. That was all because we responded in an early, decisive and effective way. Oregon is a real model example of how public health makes real impacts on people's lives. That doesn't mitigate the suffering that people have endured, particularly communities of color and indigenous people. The impact of both the virus and the social consequences of our interventions is several orders of magnitude more profound on communities that have suffered through historical disparities, and we need to double down and really work on that.
When it comes to Portland State, I’m really proud of the leadership at PSU who, first and foremost, consider the safety of our faculty, staff and students and who, second, understand what the public health science tells us and use that science to guide our approach. It was clear that, taking public health principles in mind, online and remote learning, though it has its challenges, is the best approach to keep our students, our faculty and our staff safe. What we're seeing play out in colleges and universities across the country really validates that.
In the School of Public Health, we have a contract where several of our faculty and students are involved in various aspects of the Oregon Health Authority’s response. That includes everything from contact tracing to literature reviews to policy analysis to data analysis. It's been really rewarding to give our students the opportunity to be involved in a really smart state-level response, to learn how public health is done in real life in a real emergency.
The greatest joy of my job is to have 1,600 students who are smart and inspiring. They want to make a difference. They're getting the tools and connections to do that, and they're going to do great things over the course of their careers.
Courtney Shiroma, Executive Director of University Housing & Residence Life
Given the pandemic, University Housing and Residence Life (UHRL) has had to dramatically shift our support and care for our residents. At the start of COVID we prioritized giving students the option to be released from their contract so they could go home and be in the best place for themselves. For the students who call UHRL their permanent home, our most important consideration was getting all students into single occupancy rooms and to reduce residential density. We are continuing this model through Fall term as the pandemic has shown no signs of improvement.
As we have shifted to a virtual environment, our services and programs have also had to change quickly to meet the needs of our students. It was a tough transition for all as everyone was learning to be in a remote environment and screen fatigue was a real issue. We tried multiple ideas for Spring and Summer and feel we have an exciting plan for Fall.
We have created a virtually enhanced engagement platform for students to pick what they want to be involved in and select options according to their preferences for Fall. We have also made our VikNights programming, our evening and weekend enrichment programs, to be a virtual alternative. Programs include a virtual improv night, a virtual escape room, a virtual bingo night as well as our annual fall festival will now be virtual. We have also continued our student leadership positions and are excited to have students involved in these opportunities to build connections in a virtual environment.
Stacie Taniguchi, Assistant Director of the Cultural Resource Centers
We have a huge student staff, and when we went remote, we were concerned about how to maintain and sustain our student jobs. Cynthia Carmina Gómez, Executive Director of the Cultural Resource Centers, created a professional development course so our students didn't miss one day of work. She basically did it overnight.
For our programs and events, we switched to doing digital programming. We're still figuring things out, but the Cultural Resource Centers had more programs spring term than the other terms of the year, which means we have been able to keep up and even exceed our pacing.
We’ve learned that the events where people can watch without having to be on the same screen are more successful, and my assumption is that the students might be a little drained from being on Zoom in their classes all the time.
For one of our first virtual events, Native American Student & Community Center Senior Program Coordinator Yolonda Salguiero and I did a COVID-19 collaboration with Student Health and Counseling where we talked about managing stress and physical and mental health. We found it really important to have physicians of color present on the calls, especially because of how our communities of color are disproportionately impacted by COVID.
The Pacific Islander, Asian and Asian American Student Center hosted a series of successful virtual events for Asian and Pacific Island Heritage Month in May. They had to pivot after planning a slate of in-person events. The Native American Student & Community Center CRC Programming Team and La Casa Latina hosted a live taping of a podcast duo called Bitter Brown Femmes, and that seemed to be quite popular. And our annual Multicultural Graduation was a pre-recorded video, but we released it live on Facebook so people were able to engage with it. It had over 1,000 views, and that event usually sees about 600-650 people in the ballroom.
There have been some unexpected benefits to remote events. In one program, where we talked about grief and COVID-19, we saw a lot of staff and graduate student participation, which is a little more uncommon for us. Someone at the event said, “I'm a mom and I have a chronic illness, so it's really hard for me to be on campus all the time.” She was able to participate in the event because it was virtual. After the pandemic, we’re thinking about doing more hybrid programming to engage students who are online students or students who are unable to come to our physical spaces.
The current momentum around racial justice is also COVID-related, and it happened simultaneously. It's meaningful that departments that are outside of Global Diversity & Inclusion are rising to the occasion and making commitments and reevaluating their systems to take part in dismantling white supremacy. This is a shared challenge and opportunity for everyone.
People are just working so hard. I have a lot of appreciation for all the colleagues out there just doing the work.
Dana Tasson, Associate Vice Provost for Health and Well-being, Executive Director of the Center for Student Health and Counseling (SHAC), Interim Director of Campus Rec
PSU places a high value on the health and well-being of our community. It wasn't that way 20 years ago when I first started here. Over the last 15 years we've recognized that unless students can thrive physically and mentally they're not going to succeed in academic pursuits.
Student Affairs led the way with the formation of the CARE team, and other efforts such as Campus Rec and the Healthy Campus Initiative followed. That work helped us to be more prepared to deal with COVID-19. I think that's the lesson here: Universities that focus on health and well-being during quiet times are definitely going to be more prepared when disaster strikes.
We were also reminded of the importance of having a dedicated health and counseling center on campus. The beginning of the pandemic was a time of great uncertainty and anxiety for everyone. SHAC responded by creating a dedicated nurse line to answer questions, provide guidance and offer referrals for students, faculty and staff. It really hit home that we do so much more than see students for colds and flu (although that’s still important!). We also serve a public health function on campus.
I continue to be impressed with the flexibility of our staff and their dedication to serving students. Within less than two weeks, all of our counseling services were converted to a telehealth platform, and our health services were remote by the beginning of spring term. Dental Services has implemented a number of health and safety measures and is now up and running. Campus Rec created online programming while simultaneously preparing to open at the start of fall quarter.
We’ve also had to entirely redesign our health promotion programming. It’s been trial and error, but I think we have learned that meeting students in the classroom (even if it is virtual) may be the best way to reach them. Our peer health educators are preparing brief pop-up workshops that can be incorporated in classes. We are expanding a pilot that incorporates a mindfulness moment at the beginning of class. Faculty and students who participated in previous years found that they were more focused during class and got through more material. We're figuring out how we can do that in a bigger way for online classes because anxiety and stress is going to remain a significant challenge during the pandemic.
Our new motto during the pandemic has been, “SHAC is still here for you!” We want people to know we are still available as the wellness resource for our community, especially for our students.